Family Says Land Overlooking Area 51 Is Worth $116M—USAF Says $330k

The family with a view overlooking the secretive facility continues to battle with the USAF over just compensation for their seized land.

byTyler Rogoway|
U.S. Homeland photo


Last year I shared “The Unlikely Story Of The Family Whose Neighbor Is Area 51,” an amazing saga that spanned more than 130 years. It included the pioneering American spirit, the dawn of the nuclear age and the horrific weapons tests that went along with it, a family’s love for their heritage, and most ominously, the most famous secret installation in the world—the USAF’s sprawling flight test center at Groom Lake—better known as Area 51. When we last left the Sheahan family they were at odds with the USAF, who had just made their “final offer” of $5.2 million for their very unique property. Now, a year later, the land has been seized by the Air Force and a bitter legal battle between the two parties is well underway.

Both the Air Force and Sheahans have obtained appraisals for the family’s roughly 400 acres of land and mining claims situated across the Groom dry lake bed from Area 51. The results of those appraisals could not be any more disparate. The Sheahan’s estimators put the value of the property at between $44 million and $116 million. Meanwhile the USAF has come back with another value that they are now willing to pay the family, that being just $333,300, or roughly six and a half percent of their last offer.  

The War Zone Spoke to Joe Sheahan, one of the 22 family members leading up the effort to get compensated for their property, as well as their attorney James Leavitt of the law firm Kermitt L. Watersout of Las Vegas. Joe’s perspective on the AIr Force’s latest figure is stark:

“We've gone from their $2.4 million offer, then their $5.2 (million) take-it-or-leave-it offer, to when they, in a rush, filed the paperwork to take the property. They deposited $1.2 million, and a federal judge signed the property over to them at that time. Now we're down to $333,300. It's David and Goliath, and Goliath is going to stomp you into the ground. That's their goal.”

Leavitt summed up his evaluation of the Air Force’s relatively tiny dollar figure as such:

“On September 10, 2015 the federal government obtained title to the property, as of that date or shortly thereafter. Therefore, in order to gain access, we had to get permission in order to go back onto the property, because title had indeed vested in the federal government. We took all of our experts out to the property. They had the opportunity to inspect it for an entire day, and after they inspected it, that was one of the portions, an important part of their appraisal analysis was the fact that this is an incredibly unique and special purpose property, and they included that within their analysis. The federal government's experts were also permitted in July of this year to go onto the property to inspect it also. We believe that they did not recognize the incredibly unique nature and special purpose of the property.”

Leavitt added, “They've hired an appraiser which they consider to be independent. They've hired that appraiser, and he's provided to them a report. He's provided to them his documents and information which he believes support the $333,300 number. Again, we vehemently disagree with that amount. We vehemently oppose that it even approaches just compensation. You can see that the government has been all over the place in this case. They first offered $2.4 million. Then they offered $5.2 million. Then when the lawsuit was filed, the government offered $1.2 million, and now as we've progressed through this litigation, the government's number now is down to $333,300.”

The main camp area at the Sheahan's Groom Mine property located just across the Groom dry lake bed from Area 51. , Sheahan Family

Much of the disparity between what the family says the property is worth and what the Air Force says it is worth comes from how property’s past, present and its future potential are viewed. It has what many would argue is the most fascinating and exclusive view of any piece of private property in the world—a panoramic and remarkably close-up vista of what is nearly the unseeable, Area 51. At the same time, that view, and its location inside the most restricted territory on planet, also limits not only what could go on there, but who could even access the property and when.

Land withdrawals over the last few decades have resulted in the Sheahan’s property becoming a tiny island surrounded by a huge sea of of dirt and rock controlled by the federal government. Much of that land is totally inaccessible to civilians—even to most of the military for that matter—including all the property for miles surrounding Groom Mine.  

Attorney James Leavitt describes this bizarre situation:

“In 1984, when the Air Force attempted to withdraw land around the Groom Lake property here, and the Groom Mine property, they tried to withdraw approximately 89,000 acres. When they attempted to do that, they attempted to do it in an illegal manner, got caught, and several representatives from the state of Nevada went to Congress and testified on behalf of the people of the state of Nevada and on behalf of the Sheahan family. During those hearings, and subsequent to those hearings, the Air Force recognized, and even put in writing, that the Sheahan family owned that property as private owners, number one, and number two, are the only individuals who are permitted to access that property with their business visitors. That was the exact language used in the letters.

What that did is it created a unique niche. It created a very very unique parcel of property, whereby the Sheahans and the people they invited were the only ones that could go into that valley and have an unobstructed view of Area 51.”

Groom Mine is not just some obscure inherited tract of land to Sheahan family, their roots on the property go back well over a century. For the the first half of the 20th Century the family ran a successful mining operation there. At the start of World War II the federal government came into play, surveying the area for military training operations, and they did so with the Sheahan’s help.

Groom Mine dates back to the late 19th Century, with the site being quite active for the first half of the 20th Century. Then the government showed up and things began to change in the most bizarre ways possible., Sheahan Family

Soon after, machine gun fire from aircraft began raking the mine, and in January of 1951 the nuclear tests began just a handful of miles to the west, strewing fallout over their property and making living at the mine a serious challenge and very likely a major health risk. These tests would continue on a regular basis over the decade.  

Eventually the base that we know now as Area 51 would sprout up on the dry lakebed below the mine. It was there that in the late 1950s the CIA and Lockheed’s Skunkworks began testing the U-2 Spyplane. But shortly before this time, the Sheahans have long claimed that their main ore processing facility at Groom Mine was literally bombed from the air. In their eyes this incident was no accident and they have supporting documents from back then and from today that seems to support their claim.

With mining operations all but impossible to execute, and with a never-ending legal battle in front of them, Groom Mine turned into a part-time retreat for the Sheahans from around 1960 on.

A nuclear test executed at the National Test Site during the 1950s as seen from the Sheahan's property just 20 miles away.  To the left in the frame, at the base of the moutains is where the flight test center at Area 51 sits today., Sheahan Family

As the base grew the security around it became much more intense. The family claims to have been held at gunpoint, sometimes inside structures on their own property, by security personnel associated with the installation. All this is described in great detail in my previous piece, but to say the least, the relationship between the Air Force and the Sheahans has been, at times, contentious.

This bizarre past, along with the exotic nature of Groom Mine’s neighbor and the inaccessibility of the property because of that neighbor have made for a unique property rights legal case to say the least. The Sheahan’s appraisals included not just the normal things you would associate with valuing a piece of property, such as parcel size, improvements, mineral deposits, mining claims, and access to water, but also reflected what the Air Force made their property into. Counselor Leavitt describes how this impacted their value estimates:

“What we did, is we went and we did surveys, and we had an organization out of Florida prepare a demand study to determine what the demand in this country is to enter into a property such as the Sheahan family property, which has an unobstructed view of Area 51, and which is the only privately held property in the Groom Lake Valley. What we found from those surveys and from those demand studies is that there is a huge demand to enter onto this property, and not only that, but the people who want to enter into the property are willing to pay significant sums of money, upwards of $1,000, in order to spend the day out on the property.

We then asked our appraisers to do their own finance feasibility analysis, and they came up with the same conclusion. Then we asked an economist here in the state of Nevada, who's also a real estate expert, to do the same analysis, and they all came up with the same conclusion, that this property is unique, that there's a high demand to go onto the property, that people would pay a significant sum of money to enter onto the property, and because of that, the property has a very high value.”

On the other hand, its seems that the USAF sees Groom Mine in a far less valuable light: A largely inaccessible place in the middle of nowhere, with no active business operations, and their valuation of $333,300 seems to support such a position.

Regardless of the tourism potential of the property, Groom Mine was both accessible and functioning before the federal government moved into the area. Having a neighbor that tests nuclear weapons just a handful of miles away and builds a top-secret flight testing installation in plain sight of your backdoor are not exactly the good kind to have, and they certainly do not increase your property’s value, at least not in the traditional sense—especially considering the possibility that this same neighbor may have blown-up the heart of your mining operation.

Groom Mine lies just six miles from the tip of Area 51's operational runway (the shorter one on the right)., Tyler Rogoway

It’s clear why the Air Force wants the Sheahans gone. The closest publicly accessible view of the base is from Tikaboo Peak, some 26 miles away from the base. It’s not an easy hike getting there, and you’ll need a telescope to see any details of the installation. For years people have hiked Tickaboo for a peak at the un-peakable, all the while the Sheahans have been right there, just a few miles from Area 51’s runway edge. As such, whenever the family is using the property it’s likely secret aircraft and technologies cannot be tested. These delays amount to many millions of dollars added to program and facility costs every year—and it’s not like the Sheahans are not aware of this reality—they think this should factor into the value of their property. Joe Sheahan describes the situation:

“According to their own filings, when they filed to take the property, Colonel Dempsey  (commander of the Nevada Test and Training Range) stated that they were losing tens of thousands, up to a million dollars an hour when we were there. We took those numbers to one of our experts, and they concluded that the government stands to gain from $444 million to $2 billion by removing us from our property because they had to shut down… The funny part about that is that if you read back, Jennifer Miller, she's Undersecretary of Air Force for Installations, made a statement, it's in I think the AP, that the taking of this property cannot result in a windfall for the family. Yet she's gonna get a $2 billion windfall, and now our property's worth $333,300. That's a bum there.”

While each side is digging in legally, the question becomes what case law exists that can be applied to such a strange land dispute. Attorney Leavitt is confident his legal team have identified prior case law that they think applies:

“The federal law is very clear that the Area 51 facility is a project separate from the federal project for which the property is being taken as of September 10, 2015. I'll give you just an example. In fact, this is a case in point. The federal government took some property and built a post office. Some years later, the federal government also wanted to purchase the adjoining property. The adjoining property, because of the construction of the post office, had increased in value in the meantime. The federal government tried to argue that the landowner should not benefit from the added value due to the construction of the post office, but the federal court said, “wait a minute, you can't do that.” If there's a federal project or any type of construction which was built, which was separate and apart from the project for which the property is currently being taken, that property must be valued based upon its enhanced value as a result of those prior federal projects.”

Leavitt continues, “You can see the purpose behind that rule. You can come to Las Vegas and take any parcel of property here, and you could say, "Well, wait a minute, there's freeways in Las Vegas. There's other infrastructure in Las Vegas that the government built, so you shouldn't be able to benefit from those other facilities that were built. Taken to its logical extent, that's what the rule could result in. That's why the courts are quick to identify the project for which the property is being taken. It's called the Project Influence Rule. Once the project for which the property is being taken is identified, then you cannot consider any enhancement or depreciation to the property as a result of the project.”

The attorney concludes, “Now clearly in 2015, the project for which the property is being taken is not Area 51, because Area 51 was built in the '50s, so it cannot be the project for which the property is being taken. Now, we don't doubt that the federal government will try and argue somehow that Area 51 is the project. I can tell you right now that's an uphill battle, and the unanimous federal law is that the federal government will be wrong on that issue.”

An intriguing image showing the main camp era from the viewpoint of a USAF aircraft. You can see the small bush plane tied down in the upper left of the frame. It is amazing to think that even in 1975, when the photo was taken, the family was able to fly into the location. Today "The Box" of airspace around Area 51, which Groom Mine sits well under, is the most restricted airspace in the United States and possibly even the world. Even US military and allied aircraft cannot breach its boundaries without significant repercussions, that is unless they are operating out of the base itself or receive unique specific and seemingly very rare clearance., Sheahan Family

Joe and his family still hope that a jury trial can decide the case once and for all—and there’s the issue of getting all their personal property on the hill overlooking Area 51 moved:

“The only things that have to be decided now is for a jury to decide this case as far a just compensation, and then the only other thing that we need to work out is getting 130 years worth of personal property off the property. Those are really the two things.”

To the question of whether the Air Force is going to let the family on the property to remove their belongings, it seems that by law they have to—yet, some things just can’t be as easily moved—including family members buried on the grounds.

“I don't know. They sent us a letter and tried to bully us at first, and they've since backed off that letter,” Joe said about getting access to remove 130 years of family history from the land. “Are they obligated to? Absolutely. And we are gonna stick to that. We're gonna stick to the law. We're gonna follow the advice of our legal team. That's our goal is to get our personal property back.”

Groom Mine is littered with historic relics like this antique gas pump. , Sheahan Family

In the end the family’s experience with the people that work in association with the shadowy base remains complicated to describe. Joe sums up his feelings about how he and his family have been treated, and by who, during this whole ordeal:

“You know the funny thing is we're not anti-government. We're not anti-rule of law, but unfortunately, when I dealt with the people out there, I will tell you this, 95% of the people that I've ever dealt with related to that facility they've been America's finest, and they are. They did really nice things for us, a lot of them did. I got hurt out there one time, and they took great care of me. They gave the kids ice cream. All that's true, but unfortunately it's overshadowed by the 5%. Those are the people that believe that they're so important that the Constitution and your rights don't matter. They can do anything they want, and they overshadowed those people. It's sad. That shouldn't happen in this country.”

The War Zone contacted both the Air Force and the Department of Justice for comment on the case but all requests were declined.

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